Monday, July 29, 2013

Comet ISON - Celestial Display Of Our Lifetime?

Update - November 9, 2013:

Comet ISON continues its journey to the center of our solar system for its perilous Thanksgiving Day maneuver around the sun. Whether or not ISON will survive its close encounter with our sun is still unknown. 

Astronomers will keep a close eye on ISON and study the comet's composition by observing which gases boil off the comet's core as it approaches perihelion. 

At the time the image below was taken, ISON was 212 million km (132 million mi) from Earth, roughly half the distance to Mars. 

The picture was taken on October 25, 2013 with a 36-cm (14-in.) telescope at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. I have not yet come across ISON sightings with the naked eye. Please let me know if you have sightings or photos to share in this post as I publish updates during ISON's approach.

The streak across the right side of the photo was caused by the passage of Italy's SkyMed2 satellite through the frame.
(Thanks for the photobomb, SkyMed2!)


 Image credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Comet ISON on its way to the sun - October 25, 2013

Image credit: Adam Block via

Comet ISON - October 8, 2013

The above image was published on the website for the Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC), along with an article that explains why ISON appears to have a greenish tinge.


Update - November 6, 2013: 
As we close in on Thanksgiving Day and ISON's hairpin turn around the sun, the comet's fate at perihelion is still unknown. Amazing images have emerged of ISON's journey into the inner solar system. Astronomers on Earth have already imaged it. 

We are only four months away from what could turn out to be the most stunning astronomical event of the year - potentially of our lifetimes and the entire century. Or we could end up disappointed. 

It all depends on whether or not Comet ISON will survive its plunge towards and tight turn around the sun during the far end of the outbound leg of its orbit. The comet is known as a sungrazer because of how closely it will travel to the sun. has a nice infographic that illustrates ISON’s journey through our solar system.

ISON was discovered only recently, in September 2012, by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok. The comet is named after the telescope for the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), which is operated by an association of 10 nations that cooperate to track objects in space. 

This image of ISON on its way to Earth was taken by the Hubble Telescope on April 30, when ISON was traveling between Jupiter and the asteroid belt on its way to the inner solar system. The image is a composite of five photos taken by the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 2 UVIS instrument. Three exposures were taken with a filter that let in yellow and green light (seen as blue in the image) while two used a filter that let in red / infra-red light. The result is a simulation of what human eyes would see if they looked at ISON with the Hubble telescope’s resolution.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team

This breathtaking image of Comet ISON heading towards Earth and the Sun was taken by the 
Hubble Telescope on April 30, 2013

To give you an idea of what you are truly looking at, consider the following:

- Comet ISON originated in the far regions of our solar system in the Oort Cloud and started its journey 10,000 years ago.

- This is thought to be ISON’s first trip into the center of our solar system. But if it isn’t, humanity would be unlikely to have a record of a prior passage.

- ISON will travel within 724,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface at its closest approach, while making a hairpin turn around the sun. 

- The comet’s nucleus is 3-4 miles wide and consists of ice, gas and dust particles. The comet’s tail is created as ISON heats up plunging toward the sun, trailing a tail of particles that will grow by 200 million kilograms per day as dust and ice evaporate off the nucleus. 

- ISON’s tail is already gigantic – long enough to wrap around the Earth seven times.

- If ISON survives its brush with the sun’s heat, radiation and tidal forces on Thanksgiving Day 2013, it will light up the skies for days, even weeks, and appear as bright or brighter than the moon this December. 

- ISON’s celestial display could well equal breathtaking displays of previous comet sightings in history.

If ISON delivers upon its promise of a jaw-dropping celestial display, I will throw a comet watching party in December for my birthday. 

Reading about ISON reminded me of Gregory Benford’s and David Brin’s visionary book Heart of the Comet (1986). What if we could hitch a ride on ISON at its closest passage to Earth, establish a colony inside the comet’s nucleus and send “cometary humans” off onto a journey to the furthest reaches of our solar system – a voyage that will not return back to Earth for many thousands of years?

To me, ISON’s discovery only last year, its close passage to Earth, along with the recent surprise meteor impact in Russia represent another wake-up call that we must redouble our efforts to make human life multi-planetary. What if ISON were headed for a collision course straight with Earth? Would we be able to muster the technology, capacity and international cooperation needed to prevent impact in a few short months? What if we couldn’t? Our planet would survive but would humanity be as lucky? How big will the next asteroid be that we can’t see coming because it well be headed for Earth straight out of the sun like the Russian meteorite? What if the next one is ISON-sized? Can we as a species really afford to sit on our hands and do nothing while we have the technology to colonize the moon and Mars?

Update - July 29, 2013: 
Well, it was fun to imagine cometary fireworks in our skies for a couple hours.... Here is an interpretation of available observation data that predicts ISON will likely break apart before perihelion or will not survive its close encounter with the sun.